South Africa’s In The Money

Millions of rand are being pumped into South Africa’s wineries. But, asks JAMES LAWTHER MW, when will they start producing standout wines?

The advent of cult wines and 90+ point Parker scores has added new lustre to the South African wine scene. But for a true pointer to the buoyancy of the market, you need look no further than the number of high investment wineries that are sprouting up around the Cape.

The money started to roll in with the end of apartheid and the dismantling of the government-controlled quota system in the early 1990s. Earliest in the field was the mining conglomerate Anglo American which purchased the historical and now leading estate Vergelegen in 1987. A new winery was built, 125 of the estate’s 3,500ha (hectares) replanted and the first wine released in 1992. The magic ingredient, winemaker André van Rensburg, arrived in 1998 and since then the whole range has been regularly commendable.

Another mining fortune was that of Graham Beck who launched his label in 1991. More recently there’s been a spate of private South African investors who have sunk a king’s ransom into the launch of new labels and the construction of opulent wineries.

In some cases, despite the fact that lavish wineries and accompanying visitor facilities are completed (most are located in and around Stellenbosch), the wines themselves have yet to hit the shelves.

Banker GT Ferreira established Tokara on the crown of the Helshoogte Pass in 1995. The talk is of some R60–80 million (E7–9.5million) being spent on the winery alone, but at the time of writing, a bottle of Tokara has yet to be labelled. The goal is to establish Tokara, from the first vintage, as an award-winning wine; in the meantime, wine drinkers can take advantage of the good-value second label, Zondernaam.

Over the pass lies Zorgvliet. Owners Mac and Marietjie van der Merwe sold their stake in what was the world’s largest privately owned gold mine to realise the project in 2002. Investment is rumoured to be around R150 million (E18 million). Vineyards have been planted and the winery, guest lodge and restaurants are in place, but as yet there’s no Zorgvliet to drink. Ex-Delaire winemaker Bruwer Raats oversees the winery, however, and his own Raats Family wines, a very agreeable Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, are available.

Lourensford, across the valley from Vergelegen, is another enormous concern launched by entrepreneur Christo Wiese in 2000. To date, it has no first string wine. The winery, modelled on a Spanish prototype, has a system of gantries for transporting tubs of destemmed and sorted grapes to the vats. The size and volume is impressive (the winery can handle 5,000 tonnes of grapes), but the aim of producing iconic wines still seems a distance away.

Big-money projects where the wines are more visible include Quoin Rock and Spier. Quoin Rock is owned by Johannesburg-based businessman Dave King. The winery, another spanking new, gravity-fed, stainless steel affair, has been functioning since 2001, turning out a crisp, clean Sauvignon Blanc produced from fruit grown in the new region of Elim-Cape Agulhas. A more complex barrel-fermented white, Oculus, again from Sauvignon with a touch of Viognier, is yet to be produced, though a 2002 (the 2001 was over-extracted) toothsome Merlot will soon be ready.

Spier is an enormous concern that includes hotel, conference centre, restaurants and spa, as well as the winery and vineyards. Since Dick Enthoven acquired the property in 1993, more than R180 million (E22 million) has been invested in developing the Spier Wine Estate. The first Spier and Spier Private Collection labels were released in 2000/2001. A tasting of a small range showed the Private Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 to be rich and supple with an ageing potential of up to five or six years, and the Spier Shiraz 2002 fruit-driven and spicy, with the component parts of the 2003 showing even more potential.

More modest by comparison is De Toren, yet this estate has already made a bigger splash with its flagship wine, Fusion V. Owner Emil den Dulk has astutely harnessed local expertise to develop the 25ha vineyard in the Polkadraai Hills above Stellenbosch. He also has the services of talented young winemaker Albie Koch. Winemaking and viticultural practices are meticulous, the best fruit being reserved for the grand vin, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The 2001 (the third vintage of Fusion) is a polished New World classic, displaying ripeness of origin but also elegance and restraint.

Foreign investors, too, have not been shy in coming forward. Mauritian sugar broker Marc Wiehe was one of the first when he acquired good value L’Avenir in 1991, while the Burgundian Bouchard family teamed up with Peter Finlayson to create Pinot Noir exponent Bouchard Finlayson in 1990.

The most recent news, though, is the invasion of the Bordelais. May-Elaine de Lencquesaing of Château Pichon-Longueville Lalande purchased a 125ha property on the slopes of the Simonsberg in 2003. The first vines were planted this summer and, at the same time, there is a joint venture materialising with Quoin Rock.

Others in the area include Christian Dauriac of St-Emilion grand cru Château Destieux, who led a syndicate purchase of Mont Destin in Paarl at the beginning of this year. Jean-Guillaume Prats of Château Cos d’Estournel has also made several visits in search of a venture while the earliest on the scene, Alain Moueix (co-owner of St-Emilion grand cru classé Château Fonroque) has already launched his Cabernet-based wine Ingwe.

Staying with the Bordeaux theme, Morgenster, once part of the Vergelegen estate, is turning out a very stylish Bordeaux blend with the consultative guidance of Pierre Lurton, manager of St-Emilion premier grand cru classé Château Cheval Blanc. The property is owned by retired Italian industrialist Giulio Bertrand who made the purchase in 1992. The 40ha vineyard maintains a human dimension with its attractive Cape Dutch residence, olive groves and modern but low-key winery. The first vintage was the 2000, but the 2001 shows greater finesse and balance and is a real step towards top quality in South Africa. There’s also a rounder, more approachable second wine, Lourens River Valley.

A top quality Bordeaux-style wine seems to be the ambition of many of the foreign investors, not least wine importer Alexander von Essen from Germany. His model though is the Super Tuscan, Ornellaia, and in pursuit of this von Essen has retained the services of Hungarian winemaker Tibor Gal for his new venture Capaia.

The vineyard and winery are located in the Tygerberg area north of Cape Town. The particularity here is that the wines are vinified in new Taransaud wooden vats (52 have been ordered) flown out from Cognac and assembled at the winery. The first vintage, 2003, tasted from barrel, appeared rich, suave and smoothly textured.

Swiss investors Adrian and Birgit Buhrer bought the 300-year-old wine farm Saxenburg, located in the same vicinity as De Toren, in 1989. A range of wines are produced here, all with a generosity of fruit, but with 30 of the 75ha planted given over to Shiraz, it’s the Rhône variety that has become the standard bearer here.

Indeed, Saxenburg Shiraz Select has achieved something of a high-priced cult status (although in a tasting conducted by winemaker Nico van der Merwe, the less extracted and lighter-on-the-pocket Private Collection Shiraz 2001 was preferred).

With land prices still relatively low compared to some other wine regions, South Africa is the land of vinous opportunity. With wealthy owners pumping in investment and hiring skilled technicians, and matching grape variety to terroir, then some top dollar wines must surely follow.

Written by James Lawther